Anyone who is desperately craving copies of all of the Star Wars movies on DVD should look over the options available and think about what they want, because at this point there are good commercial copies of all six movies readily available. The discs that we have finally received from Fox prove that LucasFilm does at least provide high quality audio and video as well as some good extras, when they finally get around to releasing a title on DVD. The original trilogy's 2004 DVD release, reviewed below, makes any SE bootleg irrelevent, just as the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith discs did in 2001, 2002, and 2005. I've retained reviews of the Phantom Menace and SE trilogy bootlegs just for the sake of amusement at this point, even though I don't recommend wasting your time on any prequel or Special Edition bootlegs. Bootleg activity continued beyond 2004, however, solely because of the changes made by Lucas to the original trilogy for the 1997 Special Edition re-release and the subsequent changes for the 2004 DVD's. Fans' desire to have a digital archive of the original theatrical versions of the trilogy led to a strong interest in bootlegs based on the 1993 or 1995 LaserDisc releases. By the time the Limited Edition discs arrived, those bootlegs had gotten surprisingly sophisticated, so I've left my reviews of those discs in place along with the reviews of the official releases. Links to each page are available below and are reproduced at the top of each review.
Back in May, the final installment of the Star Wars movies arrived in theaters, and it has largely been accepted to be the best of the prequels. With the arrival of this DVD, Lucasfilm has provided us with DVD's of all six feature films. I am marking this event with a review of the DVD; other (probably better) reviews are already available elsewhere online (see The Digital Bits, AICN, DVD Town, DVD Review, ...).
The prequels that we all waited so long for have been a source of much discussion and controversy. The slow pace, often painful dialogue, and low-brow "comic relief" centered on Jar-Jar fell far short of the almost-impossible expectations that greeted Phantom Menace in 1999. Attack of the Clones fares quite a bit better by comparison (fewer dull stretches, less slapstick, and no mention of midiclorians), but the cumbersome dialogue for which Lucas has become famous was still present and combined with the heavy use of digital landscapes to pose a minefield of acting challenges that not everyone in the cast could overcome. Revenge of the Sith was faced with fan-created challenges that were nearly as extreme as Phantom Menace's not only did it have to tie the often-maligned prequels in to the original trilogy, but it had to cover a series of events that had been debated and dreamed of by fans for over two decades. The Clone Wars had to end with the establishment of the Galactic Empire, Anakin had to turn to the dark side, the Jedi had to be wiped out, and perhaps most importantly Anakin had to be defeated by Obi-Wan and left half-dead. That's a lot to ask for, and the bumpy road of Episodes I and II left many people nervous about how Episode III would turn out.
In general terms, Sith delivers the goods. We see the rise of the Empire, even if Palpatine may at times come off a little over-the-top (in Sith's defense, the character was already shown to be prone to the theatrical in Jedi). We see the twins born, and while Padme's death is a bit dubiously explained, there are a couple of interesting events taking place with the birth that can be considered important ties to the original trilogy if you really want to press the issue the infant Luke hears his mother tell Obi-Wan that there is still good in Anakin (a belief that he alone shares by the time we come around to Episode VI), and Leia gets one glimpse of her mother (which she makes mention of in Jedi, describing her mother as "beautiful, but sad" we'll have to assume that her ability to focus on a face and remember so well as a newborn is a manifestation of the Force, much like we'll credit the Force for letting Luke understand his mother's words and their meaning). We even get a "snuck in at the end" explanation of Obi-Wan and Yoda's physical dissolution at death and ability to appear as spirits after their death (as well as Vader's confusion about Obi-Wan's fate at the end of A New Hope). Most importantly, the tone of the last half of the movie is as dark as it needs to be considering the circumstances. Jedi are murdered, younglings are slaughtered by Vader, death is everywhere, and at the end Obi-Wan butchers his apprentice in a scene that is more brutal than most expected.
Those are all the points where the movie succeeds, but there are still some bumps in the road along the way. The dialogue between Anakin and Padme fares better than in previous installments but is still clumsy and painful at times, which is unfortunate but also to be expected by now. The huge and visually stunning battles that appear at several points along the way are great home theater demo material, but (at least for me) they are robbed of much of their impact by the way they are presented. If you look at the space battles in the original trilogy, one of the battles that still draws me in the most is also one of the smallest the attack on the first Death Star, with only a couple dozen Rebel pilots involved. It works because you have a chance to put a person's face to many of the fighters buzzing around, and each individual loss has more of an emotional impact. The second Death Star attack retains some of this personal touch (not only with the assorted Rebel pilots, but also with Admirals "It's a trap!" Ackbar and Piett on the two opposing flagships). The battle over Coruscant at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith shows us only two individuals (Anakin and Obi-Wan), both of whom we know will survive, and a number of clones and droids dying amid a lot of very pretty explosions that come and go so fast there's almost no chance to assimmilate the information. The wookies fighting with battle droids had the potential to be the knock-down drag-out brawl that we should have had at the end of Jedi (a battle that originally was intended to pit wookies against Stormtroopers, before Chewbacca's character developed into too tech-savvy an individual to make a tribe of wookie primitives plausible and forced the use of "mini-wookie" ewoks). Instead, all we get is a handful of rushed-feeling scenes with little real weight to them. I would have really loved to see a few "personal touches" included in a couple of the major set-piece battles, particularly the fighting on Kashyyyk.
Probably most disappointing to many fans was the way that Anakin's turn to the dark side is presented. Personally, I think the intent was to show that Palpatine had spent over a decade softening Anakin up from the end of Phantom Menace (the first meeting between the two), we've seen Palpatine making a concerted and very determined effort to cultivate a relationship with Anakin, and by the time we reach Sith Palpatine has established himself as the only politician that Anakin seems to truly trust (which is saying something, since Anakin is married to a senator and since his mentor Obi-Wan has been questioning Palpatine's motives for at least a few years). Looked at that way, his fall to the dark side works OK. When Palpatine's campaign of mis-information and manipulation combines with Anakin's inherent "friend or foe" mentality, his insecurities about losing Padme after his mother's death, and the often foolish decisions made by the Jedi Council's leadership, Palpatine's success in turning Anakin makes sense. It also provides a useful contrast to Palpatine's failure with Luke in Jedi, since Luke had a fundamentally different world view that left him without any of the emotional ties to Palpatine or doubts about the Jedi path that were so instrumental in Anakin's fall. Palpatine tried to turn Luke in a single afternoon, much like he remembered doing with Anakin, but the reality is that Anakin had spent years moving toward the dark side (both in coaching from Palpatine and in actions such as the Tusken Raider slaughter). Taken purely on the scenes presented in the movie, unfortunately, the specific moment of Anakin's turn can be confusing and even jarring in its apparent suddenness. In order to justify Anakin's decision (and some people have not been able to justify it to themselves), we have to gleen information that was presented loosely or in fragments in the movies scenes such as the discussion between Palpatine and Anakin at the opera and build our own explanation for why Anakin would behave the way he does. That's unfortunate, especially since I think most of the needed groundwork was there for people to latch onto if the actual moment of Anakin's turn was a bit less rushed and jarring. (Oh, and doing something about the odd "No-o-o!" that Vader belts out after learning of Padme's death wouldn't have hurt, either.)
What about the DVD itself? How does it measure up to the other discs in the series and to the current standards for discs available on the now well-established format of DVD? Well, to start with, the presentation that we find from this DVD is by now very familiar. Cover art and disc menus use the same format established by the Episode I DVD four years ago. As I've said before, this is a good thing. Van Ling's original design for Episode I has held up quite well over the intervening years, and the discs are easy to nagivate through. This time around, the three randomly-chosen menu environments are Coruscant, Utapau, and Mustafar, while the bonus disc uses a variety of scenes. These menus are all very well done: easy to navigate and nicely eye-catching. True, the cover art is still uninspired, but at least all the spines match when you put them on the shelf.
Sith follows in Clones' footsteps by being filmed completely in the digital domain, and the transfer that we see here was mastered directly from the digital source. This approach worked well for Clones, and here again we see a gorgeous transfer. I watched Sith on a 32" direct-view HDTV with an Oppo OPDV971H DVD player that produces a 1080i signal from the DVD's 480i video. When viewed on that system and on some less sophisticated alternatives, the video here is excellent. Other reviews have gone into some detail here, but the best I can say for it is that this is a really fine looking transfer.
Audio has long been an important aspect of movies for Lucas that is part of the reason that he established THX in the early 1980's, after all. The prequels have all sported Dolby Digital EX soundtracks that offered their share of good surround sound demo material. Phantom Menace was actually the first movie to appear theatrically with a Dolby Digital EX soundtrack, although by the time it arrived on DVD there were a number of other movies available on the format with EX tracks. Sith once again gives us an EX track (and for the first time in Region 1 offers an EX track in a second language as well, specifically Spanish). As with Menace and Clones, we are getting a very cool soundtrack here, something that can really draw you into the movie and give your home theater system a respectable workout. I complained earlier about the shallowness of some of the major battles, but my complaints do not extend to the fun "eye candy" effects that populate those battles and especially do not extend to the great audio presentation crafted for them. The opening battle will likely join or even take the place of my previous Star Wars surround sound demo sample (Slave I chasing Obi-Wan through the asteroids above Geonosis, chapter 28 of Clones). Fun stuff.
As with the other two prequel movies, Revenge of the Sith comes with a commentary track and a pretty substantial bonus disc. The commentary track once again includes Lucas and McCallum as well as some other effects folks, although Ben Burtt was not part of the crew this time. Some of the technical effects stuff gets a bit dry (whether Artoo really went down that ship's ramp or a computer-generated Artoo was added later, for example), but there is still some good stuff in there. My first stop on the bonus disc was the six deleted scenes. The first deleted scene (with Obi-Wan and Anakin fleeing from Grievous) found here is not fully finished and polished, but has a number of effects scenes that are clearly rough (visible wires among other things). Other scenes are completed to the level seen on previous Star Wars prequel discs. Most of the scenes focus on the roots of the Rebellion, although there's also one of Yoda, Windu, and Kenobi discussing their concerns about Palpatine and about an unseen threat to the Jedi. None of the scenes are particularly vital to the story, although several of them are rather fun from a fan's perspective. After the deleted scenes, there was a documentary, two featurettes, a web documentary, a music video, an assortment of trailers and TV spots, an image gallery, and some other assorted tidbits. It's always fun to have the trailers, especially the trailers produced for the prequel trilogy, and there are a ton of TV spots included (some of the only 4:3 material to be found on the disc). The music video is fun, although anyone who enjoys it should probably also pick up the soundtrack CD for the bonus DVD (with an hour-long, sixteen-chapter music video built from all six movies with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and anamorphic video). All in all, it's a worthwhile mix of goodies that is worth checking out, even though it lacks a central "anchor" feature like "Empire of Dreams" in the trilogy box set.
One of the traditions established by Van Ling on the Phantom Menace DVD and continued throughout the series is the inclusion of a few easter eggs, and at a friend's request I'm adding them to the review. First, you can select which of the three menus you get when loading the movie disc: press "1", "2", or "3" during the FBI warning screen to choose which menu scheme is used ("1" is Coruscant, "2" is Utapau, and "3" is Mustafar). A "Hip Hop Yoda" music video is hidden in the "Options" menu of the movie disc; it can be accessed by pressing either "11" or "10+" and "1", waiting for a pause, then "3" followed by a pause, and then "8". Those are the only easter eggs that I'm aware of; there are none included on bonus disc.
How does the DVD presentation of my favorite prequel turn out overall? Quite well, thank you. The transfer is top-notch, the audio is a lot of fun, and the extra odds and ends are good. With the arrival of the Revenge of the Sith DVD, we have reached an impressive milestone (one that was a long time in coming) all six movies are completed and DVD's are sitting on store shelves. We will eventually see some future re-packaging and re-issuing of the movies on home video, of course probably starting with a six-movie box set in a year or two (which may re-use existing transfers for most or all of the movies and will most likely offer some new extra features) and possibly including some form of the 3D theatrical re-issues that Lucas wants to produce over the next few years. In an interesting bit of role-reversal, we may not see any further releases of the Star Wars movies on VHS. Revenge of the Sith was released solely on DVD, with no accompanying video tape version, and it would seem reasonable to expect this to set a pattern for future Lucasfilm releases. It will be curious to see how Lucas handles the impending HD optical disc format war (which now looks likely to start officially in early 2006 when both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray arrive on the market just a few months apart) now that VHS has been forsaken and DVD embraced as Lucasfilm's format of choice will Lucas take a hands-off approach reminscent of his original stance on DVD and wait a few years for the formats to mature, or will he jump in early with some or all of the movies on one or both formats? For what it's worth, DVD Review's review of this disc mentioned that Lucasfilm had plans to release the movies on Blu-ray once that format has launched, so we'll have to see what 2006 brings. Obviously, I'll keep track of it on this site, even though I plan to stick with this disc and its comrades until the format war comes to a satisfactory conclusion and proper high-def transfers of the movies with Dolby TrueHD (or perhaps Dolby Digital Plus or DTS-HD) audio are released on the winning format. This time around, it should be a pretty comfortable wait, since we have all six movies on our shelves on well-made DVD's to occupy us while we wait.
Specifications for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith